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Homemade Sub Makes Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea a Reality

February 23, 1986|JILL STEWART | Times Staff Writer

In this land of custom jeeps and stretch limos, personal spas and home computers, Don Siverts' toy puts everything else to shame.

Siverts, a Torrance illustrator, has his own private, two-man submarine.

Affectionately dubbed Snooper, the bright yellow sub is powered by golf-cart batteries. A cartoon-like concoction of airplane parts and Plexiglas windows, the sub looks like a James Bond getaway vehicle--the wacky sort of contraption that, with a flick of a switch, transforms from a submarine to a jet plane and zips handily over the horizon. It was featured in the 1978 movie "Gray Lady Down," where it performed an underwater rescue before being crushed to bits, an illusion achieved using a model of the submarine.

But this submarine is no phony movie prop.

Made From Scratch

Siverts, an illustrator who specializes in technical drawing, uses Snooper to help him out with his part-time business as a deep-sea diver. Constructed from scratch in Siverts' Torrance garage in 1969, Snooper is capable of withstanding ocean pressure at depths up to 1,000 feet. Snooper can dive like a fish and putter on the bottom like a crab. It has made more than 2,000 dives off the West Coast, and is widely used by industry and government agencies to handle risky underwater inspections and searches.

From duties videotaping the condition of oil pipelines beneath the treacherous waters of Monterey Bay, to searching for a sunken race boat last fall in the black depths of Nevada's Lake Mead, Snooper has become one of the most recognizable fixtures of Southern California's underwater world.

Siverts rents out the sub a few times a month through his side business, Undersea Graphics Inc.

"We've never advertised," Siverts said. "Divers, scientists, they just seem to know we're here."

Several corporations own mini-submarines, and the Navy has several, including the Sea Cliff and the Turtle, both based near San Diego. But

Siverts owns one of only a handful of homemade subs in the country, diving experts say.

"He's unique, really one of a kind," said Don Keach, of International Maritime Inc. in San Pedro.

Keach, who rents Snooper from Siverts for pipeline inspections, said the vessel "is a Model-T in that it doesn't have all the bells and whistles that some newer submersibles do, but it works.

"We like Don because he's capable and there aren't many submersibles out there that you can get for just $3,000 a day," he said.

Siverts and his partners, dive shop operators Bob and Bill Meistrell, berth Snooper at the Port Royal Marina in Redondo Beach's King Harbor. Snooper's mother ship, the 41-foot vessel Mother Goose, was custom-made with a launching bay to set Snooper in the water.

Unique Adventure

Although Siverts and Bob Meistrell are both lifelong divers, they say that taking a whirl in Snooper is an adventure unlike any other.

"You know that saying, 'He who dies with the most toys wins?' " Meistrell asked. "Well, that's Siverts and me."

Squeezed cozily into the 84-inch high vessel, they have heard the click-clicking of friendly dolphins as they frolic with the sub off the coast of Malibu. They have seen beds of colorful lobsters "stretching as far as the Snooper's lights can illuminate them" off the richly populated reefs of Santa Catalina Island. They have spotted and recovered bodies from boating and diving accidents, a grim chore that Snooper is occasionally called on to perform.

"You can't believe how much stuff is out there to investigate," Meistrell said. One of his favorite sights is a natural gas seep in 75 feet of water off Redondo Beach that creates a giant geyser of sparkling bubbles beneath the sea.

"It is spectacular magic to see it up close," Meistrell said. "It's like swimming through a forest of air bubbles, really quite a sight."

Still Fun

When the crew returns from a job on a clear day at sea, "somebody in the crew will say, 'And we're getting paid for this too?' " Siverts said with a laugh. "It's still as fun as the first time we tried her out."

From a viewing porthole six feet high in the vessel's snug tower, the sub's driver usually cannot see the sea floor below him because of cloudy water. The driver relies instead on a partner, who lies on his stomach just inches below the driver's chair, peering through portholes along the bottom and calling out commands.

"The bottom guy is the eyes, the top guy is the driver," Siverts said. "We rely on teamwork, but we still run smack into things all the time. We find a lot of stuff we're looking for by barging right into it."

But no matter to the Snooper. Siverts has protected the vessel's bow with metal bumpers that look something like roll bars. The bars hit objects in front of the sub, and Snooper's portholes are spared the direct impact.

Snooper's maneuvering abilities allow it to tackle jobs that might otherwise be impossible, Siverts said.

Airplane Recovered

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